LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- A federal judge on Tuesday blocked an Arkansas law banning nearly all abortions in the state while she hears a challenge to its constitutionality.
U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker issued a preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of the law, which was set to take effect on July 28. The measure was passed this year by the majority-Republican Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The ban allows the procedure to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency and does not provide exceptions for those impregnated in an act of rape or incest.
Baker called the law “categorically unconstitutional" since it would ban the procedure before the fetus is considered viable.
“Since the record at this stage of the proceedings indicates that women seeking abortions in Arkansas face an imminent threat to their constitutional rights, the court concludes that they will suffer irreparable harm without injunctive relief," she wrote.
The U.S. Supreme Court in May agreed to take up a case about whether states can ban abortions before a fetus can survive outside the womb, a showdown that could dramatically alter nearly 50 years of rulings on the procedure.
That case, which focuses on a Mississippi law banning abortion 15 weeks into a woman’s pregnancy, probably will be argued in the fall, with a decision likely in the spring of 2022.
Republican lawmakers in Arkansas and several other states, encouraged by former President Donald Trump’s appointments to the high court, enacted new abortion bans even before that case was announced. A South Carolina law enacted this year that bans abortions six weeks into a woman’s pregnancy has been temporarily blocked due to a court challenge.
The bans were pushed by Republicans who want to force the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, which had challenged the outright ban, hailed Baker's decision. The groups are suing on behalf of Little Rock Family Planning Services, a Little Rock abortion clinic, and Planned Parenthood’s Little Rock health center. The groups are also representing a doctor who works at the Planned Parenthood clinic.
“We’re relieved that the court has blocked another cruel and harmful attempt to criminalize abortion care and intrude on Arkansans’ deeply personal medical decisions,” ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson said in a statement.
Brandon Hill, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, said Baker's decision “demonstrates that the court fully understands the harmful and immediate effects this law would have on Arkansans."
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican whose office had defended the law, was disappointed with Baker's decision, a spokeswoman said.
“She will be reviewing it to consider the appropriate next step to protect the life of the unborn," spokeswoman Stephanie Sharp said in an email.
Arkansas this year enacted 20 abortion restrictions, the most in a single state since Louisiana adopted that many in 1978, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports reproductive rights.
Arkansas already had some of the strictest abortion measures in the country and two years ago Hutchinson signed into law a measure that would ban the procedure if the Roe decision was overturned. Another measure Hutchinson signed in 2019 banning abortions after 18 weeks of pregnancy is on hold due to a legal challenge.
Hutchinson on Tuesday night said he hoped the case over Arkansas' near-total ban would ultimately go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This legislation had the dual purpose of protecting Arkansas’ unborn and challenging long-standing Supreme Court precedent regarding abortion," he said in a statement. “I hope the Supreme Court will ultimately accept this case for review”